AfricAsia: Overlooked Histories of Exchange
September 14–16, 2020, 9–11 am

Connections between African and Asian spaces have defined cultural identities and expressions across centuries. This symposium will consider the dynamic locations, unique objects, and remarkable individuals whose stories evidence a radical realignment of historic power structures and axes of travel, growth, and exchange. Papers will range from antiquity to the present with an emphasis on art and material culture.

Program | Speaker Bios | Abstracts


Monday, Sept. 14: AfricAsian Spaces

Africa and Asia are often presented as monolithic and distinct entities, though they have been intertwined since antiquity. Professor Elizabeth Lambourn will offer an introductory overview of “AfricAsia” and the historic connections between these regions. Professor Pedro Pombo, artist Shiraz Bayjoo, and curator Zoe Butt will then consider key sites of exchange and their cosmopolitan milieus. Kathleen Bickford Berzock will serve as a respondent.

9:00 am: Introduction
Christine Mullen Kreamer, Deputy Director and Chief Curator, National Museum of African Art

9:10–11 am: Presentations and Discussion
AfricAsian Exchange: An Overview
Elizabeth Lambourn, De Montfort University

Coast / Island / House: Sensorial Cartographies and the Materiality of Afrasian Places
Pedro Pombo, Goa University

Shame and Resistance in the Post-colony: Plantation Legacies and Racial Hierarchies in the Mascarene Islands
Shiraz Bayjoo, Artist

Claiming Descendants of Colonial ‘Order’ across Empire: Vietnam to Senegal; Indonesia to Ghana—Embodying Memory as Artists
Zoe Butt, Factory Contemporary Art Centre

Discussant: Kathleen Bickford Berzock, Block Museum

Tuesday, Sept. 15: AfricAsian Personalities

This program will explore the lives of individuals whose travels between Africa and Asia—by choice or by force—reveal complex networks of contact and entanglement across time. These personal trajectories mirror larger political and economic realities with resonances that continue today. Scholars Michael Laffan and Thomas Lockley will be joined by artist Thania Peterson for robust conversation with discussant Yoon Jung Park.

9 am: Introduction
Karen E. Milbourne, Senior Curator, National Museum of African Art

9:10–11 am: Presentations and Discussion
Yasuke: An African Warrior in Japan
Thomas Lockley, Nihon University

Becoming Tuan Guru: Finding Greater Java in Southern Africa, 1780–1807
Michael Laffan, Princeton University

Orienting Africa
Thania Petersen, Artist

Discussant: Yoon Jung Park, John Hopkins University

Wednesday, Sept. 16: AfricAsian Materialities

History leaves its traces. Art historians Iftikhar Dadi, Ruth Simbao, and Ruth Barnes will look to the works of art and material culture shaped by AfricAsian exchanges. Drawing attention to both the overlooked treasures of history and the insightful works being created by artists today, this enriching session will also feature professor Finbarr Barry Flood as a discussant.

9 am: Introduction
Emma Natalya Stein, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

9:10–11 am: Presentations and Discussion
Ships of Plenty—The Trade between the Arab Peninsula, East Africa, and Western India
Ruth Barnes, Yale University 

Modernism in Art across West Asia and Africa
Iftikhar Dadi, Cornell University

Resisting Soft Power, Subverting Solidarity: Visual Narratives of Chinese Presence in Zambia
Ruth Simbao, Rhodes University

Discussant: Finbarr Barry Flood, New York University

Speaker Bios

Dr. Ruth Barnes is the Thomas Jaffe Curator of Indo-Pacific Art at the Yale University Art Gallery. She received her doctorate from Oxford University and was previously textile curator at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Her publications include The Ikat Textiles of Lamalera and Indian Block-Printed Textiles in Egypt: The Newberry Collection in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. One of her most recent books, Five Centuries of Indonesian Textiles, co-edited with Mary Kahlenberg, received the Textile Society of America’s R. L. Shep Award in 2010.

Shiraz Bayjoo is a Mauritian artist based between London and Mauritius. Bayjoo studied painting at the University of Wales, Institute Cardiff, and was artist-in-residence at Whitechapel Gallery in 2011. He has exhibited at Tate Britain and the Institute of International Visual Arts, London, New Art Exchange, Nottingham; 5th Edition Dhaka Art Summit; 14th Biennale of Sharjah; 13th Biennale of Dakar; 21st Biennale of Sydney; and is a recipient of the Gasworks Fellowship and the Arts Council of England. His work is represented in the Sharjah Foundation collection, UK Government collection, and French National collection, as well as private collections in Europe and Asia. Born in Mauritius, Bayjoo’s work focuses on the Indian Ocean and the European historical legacies that have shaped the region. Bayjoo has been a visiting lecturer and critic at universities in Europe and the US, most notably the Courtauld Institute, Central St. Martin’s College of Art, and Monash University in Australia. Bayjoo’s practice explores the social, political, and historical conditions integral to Mauritian cultural identity and the wider Indian Ocean region.

Dr. Kathleen Bickford Berzock is associate director of curatorial affairs at the Block Museum, where she provides artistic leadership of the exhibition, publication, and collection programs in support of the museum’s cross-cultural and interdisciplinary mission. She is curator of Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa. The project, which opens at the National Museum of African Art in October 2020, breaks new ground by presenting archaeological fragments in juxtaposition with artworks from Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and beyond and by considering the critical role West Africa played in the medieval period. Berzock is also co-editor with Christa Clarke of Representing Africa in American Art Museums: A Century of Collecting and Display (2010, University of Washington Press) and is author of For Hearth and Altar: African Ceramics from the Keith Achepohl Collection (2005, Yale University Press). From 1995 to 2013, she was curator of African art at the Art Institute of Chicago. She received her PhD from Indiana University.

Zoe Butt is a curator and writer who lives in Vietnam. Her practice centres on building critically thinking and historically conscious artistic communities, fostering dialogue among cultures of the globalizing souths. Currently Artistic Director of the Factory Contemporary Arts Centre, Ho Chi Minh City, Zoe formerly served as Executive Director and Curator, Sàn Art, Ho Chi Minh City (2009–2016); Director, International Programs, Long March Project, Beijing (2007–2009); and Assistant Curator, Contemporary Asian Art, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane (2001–2007)—this latter post particularly focused on the development of its Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. Her work has been published by Hatje Cantz; ArtReviewArtAsiaPacific; Lalit Kala Akademi; JRP-Ringier; Routledge; and Sternberg Press, among others. Recent notable exhibitions include Sharjah Biennial 14: Leaving the Echo Chamber—Journey Beyond the Arrow, (2019); Interface: Oanh Phi Phi (2019); and Empty Forest: Tuan Andrew Nguyen (2018). Zoe’s curatorial endeavors also include interdisciplinary dialogue platforms such as Realigning the Cosmos (2020–); Conscious Realities (2013–2016); and the online exhibition Embedded South(s) (2016). Zoe is a member of the Asian Art Council for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and in 2015 was named a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.

Dr. Iftikhar Dadi is associate professor and chair of the Department of History of Art and director of the South Asia Program at Cornell University. He researches modern and contemporary art from a global and transnational perspective, with emphasis on questions of methodology and intellectual history. Publications include Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia (2010), the edited monograph Anwar Jalal Shemza (2015), the co-edited catalog Lines of Control (2012), and the co-edited reader Unpacking Europe (2001). Dadi currently serves on the editorial and advisory boards of Archives of Asian Art and Bio-Scope: South Asian Screen Studies. He is an advisor to Asia Art Archive. As an artist, Iftikhar Dadi has collaborated with Elizabeth Dadi for twenty years. Their art practice investigates memory, borders, and identity in contemporary globalization, the productive capacities of urban informalities in the Global South, and the mass culture of postindustrial societies.

Dr. Finbarr Barry Flood is founder-director of Silsila: Center for Material Histories and William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of the Humanities at the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History, New York University. His publications include The Great Mosque of Damascus: Studies on the Makings of an Umayyad Visual Culture (2000) and Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu-Muslim” Encounter (2009). In spring 2019 he was the Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford. In autumn 2019 he delivered the Chaire du Louvre lectures at the Musée du Louvre on the theme Technologies de dévotion dans les arts de l’islam: pèlerins, reliques, et copies, accompanied by a book of the same title published by Hazan/musée du Louvre.

Dr. Elizabeth A. Lambourn is a Reader (Associate Professor) in South Asian and Indian Ocean Studies at De Montfort University in the UK. A historian of South Asia and the Indian Ocean world before 1500 CE, she is committed to the interdisciplinary and cross-cultural study of medieval history, and her work engages equally with texts and ‘things,’ and with texts as material ‘things.’ Originally trained in art history, she now spends a lot of her time reading—and talking to—anthropologists, archaeologists, and textual scholars. Elizabeth has published widely on the circulation of artefacts, animals, people, and ideas around the Indian Ocean area. Current research interests include: the material worlds of the ‘India Book’ (a sub-corpus of the documentary Genizah), food cultures and dietetics, emic perspectives on materiality, and equine cultures—always explored in the context of South Asia and the Indian Ocean world. Her most recent publication is the research monograph Abraham’s Luggage: A Social Life of Things in the Medieval Indian Ocean World (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Dr. Michael Laffan is a native of Canberra, Australia, and professor of history at Princeton. These days he is a student of Indian Ocean connections between Indonesia, South Africa, and Egypt. Having published on Islamic nationalism (Islamic Nationhood and Colonial Indonesia, Routledge 2003), orientalism (The Makings of Indonesian Islam, Princeton, 2011), and ideas of diasporic connection (Belonging across the Bay of Bengal, Bloomsbury, 2017), his latest manuscript interrogates the multiple claims of empire—Dutch, British, and Ottoman—on Malay and Arab subjects from the 1770s to the end of the Japanese occupation of Java. He also has a book up his sleeve on the story of the Cocos Islands, which is remarkably connected to that of Cape Town.

Thomas Lockley is an associate professor at Nihon University College of Law in Tokyo. He has researched and published on a number of historical figures, but is primarily known for his work on Yasuke, the African warrior who fought beside the Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga in the 1580s. He has written books about Yasuke both in Japanese translation and in English. The latter, entitled African Samurai, was published in the US in 2019.

Dr. Pedro Pombo is Assistant Professor at Goa University, India. He received his PhD in Anthropology in 2015 from ISCTE- IUL, Portugal, with an ethnography on spatial belonging, local history and personal narratives in Southern Mozambique. Pedro investigates traces of maritime circulations in the Indian Ocean though dialogues between cartography and archives, art, heritage, and material culture. While researching the materialities and sensorial worlds of maritime histories, Pedro also explores coastal landscapes as repositories of oceanic histories and material and intangible heritages. Pedro is also co-authoring a documentary on Goans in Tanzania, focusing in space, place, and personal memories, to be released in 2020.

Dr. Yoon Jung Park is a leader in growing field of China/Africa studies. She is the author of A Matter of Honour: Being Chinese in South Africa (Jacana/Lexington Books) and is currently completing a book on Chinese migrants in Africa. Her research focuses on ethnic Chinese in southern Africa and perceptions of Chinese people by local communities, centering on migration, racial and ethnic identity, race/class/power, gender, affirmative action, and xenophobia. She is currently the Associate Director of the China-Africa Research Initiative at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; adjunct professor in African Studies, Georgetown University; and Executive Director of the Chinese in Africa/Africans in China (CA/AC) Research Network. She also has an affiliation with the Sociology Department, Rhodes University. She holds degrees from the University of the Witwatersrand (PhD), the Fletcher School at Tufts University (MA), and Pitzer College (BA).

Thania Petersen is a multi-disciplinary artist who uses photography, performance, and installation to address the intricacies and complexities of her identity in contemporary South Africa. Petersen’s reference points sit largely in Islam and in creating awareness about its religious, cultural, and traditional practices. She attempts to unpack contemporary trends of Islamophobia through her analysis of the continuing impact of colonialism, European and American imperialism, and the increasing influence of right-wing ideologies. Threads in her work include the history of colonialist imperialism in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, as well as the social and cultural impact of westernized consumer culture. Her work is also informed by her Cape Malay heritage and the practice of Sufi Islamic religious ceremonies. Petersen studied at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art in London. In 2018, Petersen held her solo exhibition IQRA at WHATIFTHEWORLD, Cape Town. She has hosted additional solo exhibitions in 2016 at the AVA, Cape Town and in 2017 at the Everard Read Gallery, Cape Town. She has participated in numerous group exhibitions both locally and abroad, including Radical Love at the Ford Foundation, New York (2019) and Present Passing: South by Southeast at the Osage Art Foundation, Hong Kong (2019). Petersen was awarded the Thami Mnyele Residency in Amsterdam in 2019.

Dr. Ruth Simbao is the NRF/DSI Research Chair in Geopolitics and the Arts of Africa at Rhodes University in Makhanda, South Africa. She received her PhD from Harvard University, and is currently an editor of African Arts. She is a core researcher in the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence (Rhodes, University, the University of Lagos, Moi University, Joseph Ki-Zerbo University, and Bayreuth University), and the PI of Artivism, Social Justice and Epistemic Revolution. Recent publications focus on Africa–China and the arts, strategic southernness, cosmolocalism, Afrophobia, and a geopolitics of knowledge. She is the curator of Thania Petersen: Between land and a raised foot (2019), Bright Ackwerh: Where de choy dey? (2018), Converge (2018), Consuming Us (2016 with Azu Nwagbogu), SLIP: Mbali Khoza and Igshaan Adams (2014), the BLIND SPOT performance art programme at the National Arts Festival (2014), and Making Way: Contemporary Art from South Africa and China (2012-2013)


Ships of Plenty–The Trade between the Arab Peninsula, East Africa, and Western India  

Ruth Barnes, Yale University Art Gallery

This paper discusses the medieval sea trade between West India, the Red Sea, and East Africa. Boat building, navigational skills, and the transfer of goods will be considered. The trade covers textiles, wooden objects, ceramics, and food items. The wider context of travels and commercial transactions will be discussed. The author has previously researched and published the largest collection of Gujarati trade textiles made for the Egyptian market—now held in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford—and as part of that research, she has also considered contacts between Yemen and West India.

Shame and Resistance in the Post-colony: Plantation Legacies and Racial Hierarchies in the Mascarene Islands  

Shiraz Bayjoo, artist

The Indian Ocean region, home to the multiple crossovers of Africa and Asia, would eventually shape European ambitions of empire. Through colonization, the Indian Ocean’s sea routes and boundaries would be redrawn from the movement of spice and silks to include the burgeoning demand for flesh and labor. It is at these sites of intense production that the plantation colonies of the Mascarene Islands were born. Previously uninhabited and strategically positioned, Mauritius was established early on as a slave colony. First settled by the Dutch, it was under French rule that the island’s sugar plantations expanded. Ruled by the Code Noir, it would become known as the “Maroon republic.” After the abolition of slavery, the island would serve as the site of the “Great Experiment,” as the British replaced the demand for labor on its plantations with the indenture labor system. This presentation will explore how racial hierarchies persist through reductionist narratives, exposing the enduring legacies of the plantocracy. Through his ongoing practice and research focus, Shiraz Bayjoo unpacks how Mauritius’s Kreol identity is formed of Afro-Indo origins and how, through defiance from slave uprisings and escape into maroon communities, narratives of resistance and resilience begin to create new pathways of decolonization.

Claiming Descendants of Colonial ‘Order’ across Empire: Vietnam to Senegal; Indonesia to Ghana—Embodying Memory as Artists 

Zoe Butt, The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre

The geopolitical landmass considered today as Southeast Asia has, for centuries, been eyed by capital and the legacy of empire. Beginning with a thirst for spice and tea along the maritime Silk Road, trade soon turned to opiates and flesh, which eventually, by the mid-twentieth century, had become a cross-stitch of various colonial enterprises monopolizing territory and peoples for economic and ideological gain. The security of the colonies was of grave importance, and thus its various armies were conveniently built of the oppressed. In this presentation, I explore particular art projects by Tuan Andrew Nguyen (Ho Chi Minh City) and  Jompet Kuswidananto (Yogyakarta), whose research of colonial military order in the French and Dutch Empires recalls little-discussed histories in their local communities. From Vietnam to Senegal, from Ghana to Indonesia, Tuan and Jompet reveal the power of embodied memory (as effective sound, image, object, and speech) gleaned from the descendants and residual friendships of colonial soldiers whose foreign posts seeded love and honor. Their experiences, imagined and relived, celebrate and give monument to the connections forged between colonial subjects and the need to validate their significance and contribution today.

Modernism and Decolonization in Africa and Asia  

Iftikhar Dadi, Cornell University

Modernism in much of Africa and Asia is consolidated with reference to the decolonization of the region in the decades following the Second World War. Questions of sovereignty and political independence are inflected in the work of artists from the region, who forge an aesthetic that ventures beyond folklore, stasis, and realism and instead embraces multiplicity, transformation, and abstraction. Artistic modernism in the region developed across multiple trajectories, which include study and travel in the Western world, South–South exchanges, and a perception of decolonization that extends beyond nationalism. This paper will focus on two exemplary figures, Anwar Jalal Shemza (1928–1985) from Pakistan and Ibrahim El-Salahi (b. 1930) from the Sudan, who both studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in the later 1950s and who grappled with analogous concerns in their mature careers.

AfricAsian Exchange: An Overview  

Elizabeth A. Lambourn, De Montfort University

Professor Lambourn’s opening presentation offers an essential grounding to the ambitious timescale and geographies of this symposium. Her paper presents key moments in African–Asian exchanges from antiquity to the contemporary period and is illustrated with ample maps and other materials.

Becoming Tuan Guru: Finding Greater Java in Southern Africa, 1780–1807 

Michael Laffan, Princeton University

In this presentation, I will describe the transformation at the Cape of Good Hope of a Moluccan exile who identified with his home island of Tidore (in the distant Spice Islands) to a leading teacher who embraced the prestige of the more powerful island of Java.  As I will argue, Java’s prestige was felt not merely by his fellow exiles and the many Asian and increasingly Afro-Asian slaves he ministered to, but it was accepted by the Dutch authorities as well, to whom he ultimately dictated his will in 1806 as a “former prince” of that Island

Yasuke: An African Warrior in Japan  

Thomas Lockley, Nihon University

In 1579, an African warrior arrived in Japan. We do not know his given name, but he became famous in Japan as  Yasuke. For two years, Yasuke worked in Japan as a bodyguard for his missionary employer, learning considerable Japanese and the etiquette of comportment in the process.  In 1581, the missionary approached the country’s greatest warlord,  Oda Nobunaga, to ask permission to leave.

On the journey to court, Yasuke was mobbed twice by locals, who may have seen him as a kind of divine visitor, as the Japanese associated dark skin with deities. Nobunaga demanded to know who was disturbing his peace, Yasuke was brought before him, and destiny intervened. Within a matter of months, Yasuke was a close confidant of Nobunaga and was the first foreigner to be granted samurai status. Rumors abounded that Yasuke would be given a lordship of his own. However, a general called Akechi attacked Nobunaga with overwhelming force, driving him to perform seppuku. Yasuke rescued Nobunaga’s severed head from capture but then faded into history. Today Yasuke is reborn as a character in computer games, books, and movies—and as a source of inspiration for people around the world.

Orienting Africa  

Thania Petersen, artist

I will be presenting my latest short film, KASSARAM. I grew up understanding the old Malay word kassaram to mean a “big mess” or things being “out of place” or  ”upside down.”

I am from a community whose ancestry traces the forced migration of European colonial trade routes between Africa and Asia. We are quite simply described as the descendants of Indonesians brought to the Cape, known as the Cape Malays.

The mess begins when you realize that, as much as you can trace our ancestry to Indonesia, you can undoubtedly link us to many other countries and people from all over Africa, Asia, and Europe as well. The complexity of this story, however, does not form part of our cultural identity: we have been deliberately Orientalized, erasing all of our African heritage and permanently cementing us as the Other. In a landscape built to mirror Europe but defiantly remaining “African,” to be “Malay” means to not belong. Too African to be Asian and too Asian to be African.

In a hyper-globalized, postcolonial/post-apartheid world that is becoming increasingly polarized, our very existence challenges any set ideas of what it is to be an African, Asian, European, Muslim. . . the list is endless.

This film and presentation interrogate and explore the artistic strategies used by European colonial forces to create and impose the positioning of people in South Africa’s society, highlighting how present-day imperialist agendas perpetuate these practices by continuing to impose contemporary “orientalist” views on diverse communities worldwide.

Coast / island / home: Sensorial Cartographies and the Materiality of Afrasian Places  

Pedro Pombo, Goa University

Based on research explorations of Afro-Asian worlds, this presentation essays the creation of new templates for counter-cartographies of the Indian Ocean coasts and archipelagos and their built, social, and natural ecologies. Exploring the concept of place in dialogue with the two other themes of this symposium, people and objects, I discuss fieldwork experiences between Western India and East Africa and how ethnographic research on both the material traces and embodied memories of migration and coastal and insular waterscapes can unveil more truthful cartographies of Afrasian worlds.

Studying maritime connections in port cities and islands organically opens space to the aesthetics and epistemological possibilities of coastal landscapes (Hofmeyr 2012). Observations on architecture and historical urban processes, personal memories, and social and intimate spaces dialogue with visual and audible discoveries of estuaries, mangroves, coral reefs, backwaters, and bays. Assuming a sensorial approach to places and the multiplicity of histories and elements they embody—tangible, affective, mnemonic, and environmental—I engage, thus, with the Western Indian Ocean as an Afrasian place where locations are simultaneously rooted in land and water, departing from three types of places that interact at different scales: coast, island, and home.

Coastal environments act as repositories for social and cultural histories: tidal movements, silting estuaries, or the monsoon system are deeply ingrained in historical shifts of maritime circulations across the Indian Ocean. In the case of the Western Indian Ocean archipelagos, insularity has had a central role in political, social, and economic regional histories, and qualities of “island-ness” (Gupta 2010) in the region disturb assumed dichotomies between central/peripheric or mainland/oceanic territories. At smaller scales, urban ensembles, architecture, and domestic spaces reveal, in their aesthetics and memories they keep, affinities built across space and time. While intimate and family spaces can become, sometimes literally, museographic enclosures, public display of cultural belongings through decorative elements or community buildings complexifies oversimplified notions of nation–state and citizenship.

Thinking with different scales and constitutive elements allows to organically connect places, people, and objects, as all of them are interweaved in multiple ways. And this, in turn, opens the path to alternative maps drawn not with dividing lines but by using the instability of oceanic cycles and their lives on the shore, where each place has its own “elsewheres” (Meier 2016).

Resisting Soft Power, Subverting Solidarity: Cultural Narratives of Chinese Presence in Zambia

Ruth Simbao, Rhodes University

Political and economic discourses of “China-Africa” often reduce culture to soft power—noncoercive yet persuasive diplomacy that drives a compelling narrative in order to serve a stipulated geopolitical impression. Similarly, solidarity tends to be relegated to the official and flattened rhetoric of “China-Africa friendship” and “people-to-people encounters.” However, cultural expressions and experiences are much more complex. Solidarity and resistance are at times deeply entangled, and slippages between official/unofficial occur. Challenging simplistic notions of soft power, solidarity, and resistance, I compare four contemporary cultural narratives of Zambian and Chinese encounters: (1) the collaboration between the Confucius Institute and art students at Evelyn Hone College and the University of Zambia, (2) the TAZARA Memorial Park that is being built in Chongwe, (3) the 2020 Temple fair of the Chinese Spring Festival that included an artists’ exchange and exhibition at the Sino-Zambian Art Salon in Lusaka, and (4) the practice-led research of the Lusaka-based artist Stary Mwaba. These cultural and artistic expressions of Zambia–China narratives reflect a “geopolitics of intimacy” that grapples with the intricacies of human interaction, the hidden labor of intimacy, the assertion of personal and artistic agency despite political pressure, and the subversive potential of creative expression.